Sport: Playschool of excellence

Andrew Baker discovers the halls of the Science Museum make good sports fields

There was a time when schoolchildren dreaded a trip to the Science Museum, in London. Tantalisingly close to the monstrous delights of the Natural History Museum, it contained behemoths less fascinating than Tyrannosaurus Rex: beam engines, steam pumps, aircraft undercarriages... "Miss, we're bored."

No longer. Science of Sport, a new exhibition which opened last week, is the answer to science teachers' prayers. Its aims are high-minded, befitting its dignified location: to provide an "investigation into the roles science and technology play in sport", but that will not deter junior visitors. They will not be concerned with the purpose of all the gadgetry: they will want to know what they can play with.

The answer is "almost everything". Only the McLaren grand prix car is "hands off". Every other display is very much hands - and in some cases feet, heads and bottoms - on.

The first stop is a potentially depressing machine that computes the visitor's height and ideal weight. Adjacent to this, to reinforce the message, are plastic representations of sportspersons' daily diets. One is designed to make the overweight feel guilty: a typical jockey apparently consumes in a day a tuna sandwich (no butter), a cup of coffee, a piece of steamed fish, two small potatoes, a couple of beans, a piece of fruit and two glasses of wine. Another display will make fatties feel fine: breakfast is egg, sausage, bacon, toast and tea, dollops of cholesterol follow at regular intervals and the day concludes with eight pints of bitter. It is the darter's diet.

But enough of weighty matters - there is fun to be had. The biggest queues on the opening day were for the snowboarding simulation. The spurious reasoning behind this exhibit is the importance of balance to the successful sportsperson. More significant is the importance of whizzy rides to the successful exhibition. Anyway, who cares? Young visitors will be much too busy trying to stay on their bucking boards as they traverse a virtual mountain to worry about why they are doing it.

Some of the other exhibits are of tenuous scientific validity, in particular the bobsled simulator and the gigantic Weeble in American football gear. The latter nevertheless did prove one theory: that children will hurl themselves at anything soft, heavy and wobbly.

Some displays are coaching aids designed to improve skills, like the football penalty shoot-out set-up, the tennis target-shooting game and the basketball hoops placed at escalating heights. Others are more sadistic, like the rowing and cycling machines. Most exhausting (and instructive for the able-bodied) is the sprint wheelchair simulator, which painfully illustrates the strength required of Paralympic athletes.

There is also a "digital sprint track" which sounds impossible but is in fact simply 20 metres of running track linked to a computer. You pop out of the starting blocks and by the time you have panted to the end of the track your performance has been extrapolated over 100 metres and compared unfavourably on digital read-outs with the times of Messrs Christie, Lewis and Co.

There are cerebral pursuits alongside the physical, including two television- based displays hosted by the Mr Annoying of athletics, Kriss Akabusi. One of these takes the form of an interactive quiz, in which each correct answer is greeted with a yell of encouragement from Akabusi. This was not universally popular with older punters on the opening day. "For goodness' sake get a question wrong," one woman instructed her partner. "It might shut him up."

What will shut parents up is the siting of a Foot Locker sports clothing and equipment boutique on the way out of the exhibition space. It seems a shame that what is likely to be a highly effective exercise in enthusing young people about sport should carry such a commercial sting in the tail. But perhaps it is not inappropriate: one science with which sport is becoming ever more familiar is that of separating people from their money.

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